How to Make the Most of Your Annual Physical
Essential questions to ask during your doctor's visit, at every age
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You exercise a ton, eat well, and have managed to stay injury-free for years. An annual physical may seem pointless. But if you ask your doctor the right questions, you can get the information you need to boost athletic performance, decrease your risk of injury and disease, and generally feel better as you get older.
Twenties and Thirties
It’s easy to feel invincible during these years, but your bone density starts declining around 30, says Brad Abrahamson, a Colorado-based sports-medicine physician. Vitamin D3 can help mitigate these losses and reduce risk of stress fractures, but many of us struggle to get enough through diet and sun exposure alone. Ask your doctor to test your D3 level; if it falls below 50 micrograms per milliliter, they can recommend a high-quality supplement. You should also order a ferritin test if you avoid meat, says Ashley V. Austin, a sports-medicine doctor and team physician at the University of Washington. This measures your stores of iron, an essential mineral found primarily in meat that supports muscle recovery and bone health.
Forties and Fifties
This is the age when aches and pains can settle in. But as Ryan J. Lingor, a sports-medicine doctor at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, puts it: “We don’t need to accept the fact that we’re going to feel worse as we get older.” Describe your diet and exercise routine to your doctor, and ask if there are any modifications they recommend. Research suggests that certain foods—including those that are high in healthy fats, such as avocados and nuts—can decrease inflammation and slow arthritis. You should also flag any musculoskeletal pain (discomfort in bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, or nerves), no matter how minor, says Abrahamson. Doing so gives you a chance to address the issue now, through physical therapy and other treatments, rather than undergoing joint replacement later. Lastly, if you are menopausal, discuss your calcium and D3 intake. Make sure you’re getting enough to reduce your risk of bone-health issues like osteoporosis (brittle bones) and osteopenia (thin bones), advises Austin.
Sixties and Early Seventies
By now your joints are likely worn down from years of high-impact activity. Incorporating resistance bands into your exercise routine can strengthen your muscles and bones without stressing your joints, says Austin. Not familiar with resistance bands? Ask your doctor or get a referral to a physical therapist. (And click here for a good all-around routine.) Now is also the time to understand how any medication you take might impact your athletic performance and overall wellness. For example, a certain class of acid-reflux medicine known as proton pump inhibitors can deteriorate bone health, explains Austin. Finally, map out your fitness goals for the next 30 years. Say you want to road bike deep into your retirement. Ask what steps you can take now that can help you achieve this goal, such as tweaking your routine to reduce impact on bones and joints.
Seventy-Five and Beyond
Muscle mass declines with age. If you don’t practice strength and conditioning exercises, you will become weaker and more prone to falls, Austin says. This is where assistive devices—hiking poles, knee braces—and supportive, well-cushioned footwear, which can protect arthritic joints as you move, come in. Ask your doctor what they recommend. It’s also important during these years to lift light weights, so you can maintain the strength you need to safely perform everyday tasks. Discuss which preventive exercises you should be doing and how to incorporate them into your routine. Austin, for example, recommends chair squats, leg lifts, and biceps curls; she also points to data that shows regularly practicing tai chi can reduce your risk of falls.